A Princeton grad’s enigmatic relationships with a beautiful rich girl and the religious group that claims and possesses her provide the unstable center for this strained, turgid second novel.
Czuchlewski (The Muse Asylum, 2001) focuses tightly on his narrator Matt Kelly, an idealistic type who works for a pittance as a Harlem “teacher for Humanity”—and tries to forget Anna Damiani Barrett, his former classmate and lover, whose bizarre appearances and disappearances are connected to her membership in “Imperium Luminis”: “A vast network of believers giving away their incomes and signing over their lives, working to remake the world according to God’s plan.” In a jumpy narrative that ranges from Matt’s school days to his final discoveries about Imperium Luminis, Czuchlewski traces this protagonist’s educative encounters with several mystifying characters. First and foremost is Anna: devout convert to a benevolent society, or duped victim of a cupiditous cult? The girl of Matt’s dreams, or a manipulative seducer? Quandaries multiply, as Matt matches wits with I.L. spokesman Father Harrington; a former I.L. member (Gregory Blake) who now rescues captive disciples; and Anna’s rough-edged millionaire stepfather Carl Barrett (“new money from ethnic Brooklyn”). An intermittently gripping subplot reveals the true history of Matt’s unnamed father, a traumatized Vietnam veteran and lifelong underachiever whose relentless terminal illness plaintively mocks Matt’s conflicted motions toward, and away from, “the light.” Alas, the Imperium Luminis plot is banal and uninteresting, and Czuchlewski makes it worse by layering in soporific passages from the autobiographical confession of I.L.’s founder Giuseppe Conti, a Sicilian St. Paul of criminal origins, with a prose style reminiscent of Ayn Rand or Khalil Gibran.
A major speed bump in an otherwise promising career. Is this actually Czuchlewski’s first novel? It’s tempting to think so.